Braves 2016 Preview Series: Outfield

The 2016 Braves Positional Preview Series examines who could comprise the 25-man roster on Opening Day as well as players who could make a difference this season and beyond. A new preview will be released each Monday, with accompanying podcasts featuring special guests coming out each week as well.

  • Part 1 – Catchers
  • Part 2 – Infield
  • Part 3 – Outfield
  • Part 4 – Starting Rotation
  • Part 5 – Bullpen
  • Part 6 – Top Prospects

 

The Braves outfield got an injection of talent in a big off-season trade. With new center fielder Ender Inciarte joining veteran right fielder Nick Markakis, Atlanta is hoping infielder Hector Olivera can make a smooth transition to left field. They are three very different players, and each one will be counted on to contribute in 2016. Meanwhile, another pair of veterans – Michael Bourn and Nick Swisher – will try to find their place in this mix.

 

Nick Markakis | RF | Age: 31 | Contract Status: 3-years, $33 million

As the Braves began a rebuilding process last winter, many were left scratching their heads as to why Atlanta would sign a veteran like Nick Markakis to a four-year, $44 million deal. After all, the wholesale trading that took place in the subsequent weeks and months really didn’t jibe with free agent expenditures. The fact that Jason Heyward had been dealt away was one reason to sign him. Lack of viable position player prospects who could step in was another reason. However, the front office has often stated there is a certain intrinsic value to having Markakis on a team in transition. It gives a crop of young talent an exemplary player to learn from throughout the process. I’m of the opinion that last part carries a significant amount of weight, as did finding a right fielder who could step and contribute on a daily basis – a known commodity. For the most part, Markakis delivered.

Let’s take a look back at 2015. His .370 OBP was his highest since 2010 and tied for second best of his 10-year career. Despite December neck surgery, Markakis played 155 or more games for the eighth time in nine seasons. Unfortunately, his power bottomed out with a career low three home runs. While his homers were down, his doubles spiked for the first time in five years. Markakis totaled exactly 42 extra-base hits for Atlanta, the same number he had in 2014 with the Orioles. He seemed to gain strength as the season wore on, collecting 20 doubles in 88 games during the first half, compared to 18 doubles, a triple and all three home runs in his final 68 games. It’s a far cry from the player he was over his first five seasons in the majors, but Markakis should be stronger following a regular off-season work-out regimen.

Defensively speaking, Markakis makes the plays that are hit to him, but his range and his arm both seemed in decline in 2015. Those could be side effects of an off-season spent convalescing from neck surgery, but players generally don’t improve defensively with age. That said, Markakis is a capable veteran outfielder who plays his position well enough not to hurt the team. He’s unlikely to win any more gold glove awards, but Markakis does own a major league record 398 game errorless streak which came to an end last season. He’s committed just 19 errors in 3,090 chances as an outfielder, though his advanced defensive metrics are far from elite level and demonstrate the volatility that has been associated with those stats. If you want further reading, Brian Henry of Statliners put together some very interesting thoughts on getting the masses to “trust” defensive metrics.

Markakis was a road warrior in his first season with the Braves. He batted .315 with a .798 OPS away from Turner Field, compared to .276 with a .692 OPS in his new home park. Markakis also turned in exactly the kind of veteran at-bats that Atlanta was hoping for, hitting .306/.420/.410 in 162 PA with RISP. It’s worth noting that his .338 BABIP is the second highest mark in his career, so there could be some regression there. However, if Markakis’ power returns and he remains durable, there is a decent chance he could turn in a 2.0 WAR season. It’s at this point that I’ll circle back to a fine piece by Dave Cameron of Fangraphs from March of 2014, in which he postulated that a win is worth about $6 million. Thus, if Markakis can be a 2.0+ WAR player, then his $11 million salary is right in line with what the market has commanded recently. At worst, the deal is fair market value for a player who contributes as such, though it does not account for any of the intangible value for which Atlanta is no doubt hoping to benefit from in signing Markakis to begin with. Truth is, that value per win may well have adjusted up given the sizable contracts handed out over the past two winters. That, however, is a conversation for another time.

Ender Inciarte | CF | Age: 25 | Contract Status: Pre-arbitration

One of the many pieces the Braves received in the Shelby Miller trade, Ender Inciarte is a defensively gifted outfielder who also brings some speed to the table. He fits the Braves’ bill of young and controllable, not to mention talented. Most importantly, he is a building block with a major league track record. You’ve probably heard a lot about Inciarte’s defense, because he rated among the best in baseball in 2015. His 29 defensive runs saved were second only to Tampa Bay’s platinum glove center fielder Kevin Kiermaier (42) in all of baseball. A true center fielder, Inciarte played all three outfield spots for Arizona and posted a 14.5 UZR/150 which was fifth best in MLB last season (according to FanGraphs). What do those numbers tell us? The same thing you can see with your eyes on a daily basis; Inciarte can go get it with the best of them. When building a club for long term success, it’s always a good rule of thumb to be strong up the middle defensively. Acquiring Inciarte is a major step in the right direction, and we haven’t even talked about his hitting.

“He’s a special player,” Braves President of Baseball Operations John Hart said of Inciarte following the trade. “He hit .300 last year. He’s an energy player who is going to make our club better in 2016. You combine him with [Erick] Aybar at the top of the lineup and we’ve got a little different dynamic [than last year]. We’ve got some speed. This is a guy who we think is going to be a big piece for us.”

As Atlanta has gone through the steps of rebuilding its team from the ground up, adding a talent like Inciarte represents a significant step. He’s not a prospect or a relative unknown who has yet to demonstrate value at the major league level. Though Inciarte may not be a household name, he’s exactly the kind of player that the Braves needed. General manager John Coppolella said that 10 clubs had inquired about Inciarte’s availability within a few hours after the big trade with Arizona. While there’s always the possibility that the Braves could deal him, not to mention quite a few rumors in the past month, there is a compelling case to keep him. And that’s just fine with the Braves front office, which is operating under the auspices of “never say never… unless your name is Freddie Freeman.”

At the plate, Inciarte is a contact hitter who batted .303 in 524 at-bats for Arizona in 2015. He does not walk that often, but his ability to put the ball in play allows him to profile as a top of the order bat for Atlanta. Power is another thing he lacks. However, Inciarte has proven he can hit for a high average at every stop in his career, including a .292/.329/.386 line in his first 1,008 PA in the big leagues. His career .321 BABIP seems easily attainable, and considering Inciarte has just an 11 K%, he seems a lock to continue as a .300 hitter. Pair that with Inciarte’s speed, and there’s reason to look forward to him as a leadoff hitter for Atlanta in 2016. Andrew Simon of MLB.com pointed out a few of the factors that makes Inciarte such an in-demand player. Speed certainly made the list:

“Inciarte may not be Billy Hamilton or Dee Gordon, but he can move. Of players who had at least 200 home-to-first trips measured by Statcast™ this season, Inciarte’s average time ranked as the ninth fastest. At least to some degree, that speed has shone through in Inciarte’s game. For example, over the past two seasons, he is seventh among all players with 16 bunt hits.”

If there’s a weakness in Inciarte’s game, it’s his inability to do much against left-handed pitching. The lefty swinger held his own with a .273/.326/.320 line in 140 PA against LHP in his rookie season, but slumped to .227/.253/.277 in 150 PA last season. Inciarte boasts a career .309/.346/.422 line with all 10 of his career home runs in 718 PA vs RHP. Making strides to at least get back to where he was against lefties in his first season would go a long way toward his development as an everyday big leaguer. If you’d like to read an interesting piece on Inciarte’s platoon splits, Eno Sarris of FanGraphs has you covered.

Hector Olivera | LF | Age: 30 | Contract Status: 5-years, $32.5 million

There are plenty of storylines coming into 2016, but the future of Hector Olivera is definitely toward the top of the list. Acquired from the Dodgers as part of a three-team trade last July, Olivera was a hot commodity last winter on the international market. The Cuban defector eventually chose Los Angeles over Atlanta, in large part because the Dodgers handed him a 6-year, $62.5 million deal with a $28 million signing bonus. As it turns out, Coppolella and company didn’t give up that easily and put together a deal that brought in Olivera at a very team friendly salary for the next five seasons. Now it’s up to Olivera to prove that he can provide consistent production that makes him worth the money and the price tag of Alex Wood and Jose Peraza.

Atlanta hopes the investment will represent a highly affordable source of production in a market that is seldom offering value plays for teams in need of such a thing. Since Los Angeles was nice enough to pay Olivera’s entire signing bonus, that gives the Braves five years at an average annual salary of just over $6 million – escalating from $4 million in 2016 up to $8.5 by 2020. There were some questions about the health of Olivera’s throwing arm, with conflicting reports that he may have UCL damage. If Olivera eventually requires Tommy John surgery to repair his elbow, a $1 million option is added for the 2021 season. John Lackey had a similar clause in his contract that saw him pitch for the Cardinals last year at the bargain price of $500,000 after undergoing Tommy John and missing the 2012 season. To its credit, St. Louis added performances bonuses to Lackey’s salary, but that’s beside the point.

With all of the contractual obligations laid out, let’s take a look at the Olivera the player. Once a second baseman, Atlanta was hoping Olivera would be able to make the transition to third base. Unfortunately, he didn’t take to it quickly, which lead most talent evaluators to believe he would be average at best at the hot corner. Rather than continue solely down that path, the Braves opted to shift Olivera to left field in winter ball, a position that the club had previously discussed as his final destination down the line. With just 24 major league games under his belt, few expected the change to occur so soon. By moving him now, however, it gives Olivera the opportunity to get comfortable with that change and concentrate on his hitting.

After making seven different affiliated stops between Los Angeles and Atlanta in 2015, the Braves are hoping that some continuity will go a long way toward Olivera establishing a comfort level as he adapts to the major league game. A career .323/.407/.505 hitter with 96 homers and 433 RBI in 642 games in Cuba, Olivera is 6’2” and a solid 220 pounds, but does not have the raw power some would expect. Instead, an advanced approach at the plate coupled with excellent bat speed led scouts to believe Olivera has 20 home run potential. The Braves didn’t get to see as much as they would have liked in 2015 from Olivera, but there were flashes of his skills in September. He batted just .253 with a .715 OPS in those 24 games for Atlanta last season, driving in 11 runs. Much like Markakis, though not as extreme, some rest and a regular off-season regimen could and should benefit Olivera in 2016. Both Hart and Coppolella praised Olivera’s transition to the outfield while working with coach Bo Porter during winter league play in Puerto Rico before his strange dismissal from the team. They also mentioned Atlanta has not completely “abandoned” the idea he could play some third base as well. We’ll get a better idea of what they have in store once spring training comes around. The Braves believe they have a hitter who can bat around .280 and hit 20 homers annually. For now, though, Olivera is one big case of “wait and see.”

Michael Bourn | CF | Age: 33 | Contract Status: 1-year, $14 million

Prior to the trade that landed Inciarte, it sure sounded like the Braves were preparing to go into the season with Michael Bourn getting the majority of the playing time in center field. Obviously, that plan changed rather quickly when Atlanta acquired a premiere defender to man the spot on an everyday basis. While Bourn is not he player he was during his previous stint with Atlanta, he still has enough to offer as a fourth outfielder. Bourn was reacquired in a trade with Cleveland that saw the Braves finally divest themselves of third baseman Chris Johnson. The Indians were looking for a way to clear both Bourn and Nick Swisher from their books and kicked in roughly $15 million in addition to taking Johnson on for the remainder of last season. They’ve since released him, and Johnson caught on with the Marlins last week.

Back to Bourn, though. He is not getting any younger, and that is seldom a good sign for a player who made a living with his legs. From 2009-2012, Bourn averaged a solid .280/.348/.378 line with an average of 54 stolen bases in 153 games. He did all of that while providing top shelf defense. Some stolen bases aren’t out of the question, but gone are the days of leading the league in steals and running down hard hit balls on the fly in the gaps. Injuries were not kind to Bourn during his stay in Cleveland either. He batted just .238/.310/.282 in 482 PA with 17 steals in 24 attempts between the Indians and Braves last season. That line included a less than stellar .221/.303/.257 mark in 156 PA with Atlanta. That doesn’t inspire much confidence, but Bourn didn’t have the best luck either, evidenced by his .280 BABIP with the Braves. Another not-so-fun number is Bourn’s GB/FB (Groundball to Flyball Ratio), which has been trending in the wrong direction over the past five seasons – from 2.56 GB/FB in 2010 down to just 1.69 GB/FB in 2015. What does that mean? A speedy player with limited power potential who could benefit from keeping the ball on the ground is not, in fact, keeping the ball on the ground. In short, it means more outs. That has no doubt contributed to a falling batting average for the last four seasons.

None of that generates excitement about Bourn’s chances of contributing on an everyday basis, but he could offer some production in a reserve role while providing a strong veteran presence in a rather young clubhouse. Some scoff at that notion, but the team building aspect. especially with a young roster, calls for well-respected players who can provide some regular leadership. Now, that alone is not enough to warrant keeping a player around who is routinely hurting the team on the field, so some level of production is required to hold a roster spot. Bourn is as well-respected as they come, and has already been mentioned as a mentor for speedy center field prospect Mallex Smith. Hart went as far as to say that they plan on lockering the two men right next to each other in spring training. Provided he remains healthy and Atlanta doesn’t find a taker for Bourn and his salary in the coming weeks, he has a good chance to make the 25-man roster. Bottom line, that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

Nick Swisher | OF | Age: 35 | Contract Status: 1-year, $15 million

Nick Swisher likely stands on the shakiest ground of any player on the Braves roster. There are a multitude of reasons, beginning with the knee ailments and declining production which have sent his numbers into a sharp decline over the past three seasons. After averaging 26 homers and 83 RBI for an eight-year run from 2005-2012, Swisher hit just 22 homers and knocked in only 63 runs in 2013, his first season in Cleveland. The past two years have seen injuries take their toll, as he’s batted just .204 with 14 HR in 661 PA over 173 games. Even if he were healthy and semi-productive, first base and the corner outfield spots don’t seem to offer much in the way of opportunity for Swisher to find regular at-bats.

It is doubtful that Atlanta will be able to find a team willing to take on any sizable portion of the $15 million that is due Swisher in the coming weeks or months. As I mentioned with Bourn, the Indians did send money to off-set the difference in those two salaries and that of Johnson. That does serve to soften the blow of potentially releasing Swisher at some point this spring. Given the glut of outfielders, Freddie Freeman entrenched at first base and the lack of the designated hitter option in Atlanta, a pinch-hitting role seems to be the most that he could hope for should he stick around. With the likelihood that the Braves will cut ties with the switch-hitting veteran, there’s little reason to expect much of Swisher in 2016.

Non-roster Invitees:

Atlanta is not bringing too many extra men to camp as it puts together the outfield for 2016. Matt Tuiasosopo, 29, is the only veteran with an invite. He has seen time with both the Mariners and Tigers, but batted just .207/.290/.356 in 401 PA. He has just 152 games under his belt in parts of four big league seasons from 2008-2013. Tuiasosopo spent the last couple of seasons in the Blue Jays and White Sox organizations, showing some power – 31 homers in 225 games – but little else. He will likely find himself mixing it up for a fifth straight season in the International League when and if he joins Gwinnett… The Braves also invited 2014 first round pick Braxton Davidson to camp. He will be profiled in the Prospect Preview on Feb. 8th.

Grant McAuley covers the Braves for Sports Radio 92-9 The Game. You can follow Grant on Twitter. All statistics are courtesy of Baseball-Reference unless otherwise noted. Subscribe to his podcast, “Around the Big Leagues” on (iTunes) or (Stitcher).

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